It will not always be like this, The air windless, a few last Leaves adding their decoration To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up From the day’s chores, pause a minute, Let the mind take its photograph Of the bright scene, something to wear Against the heart in the long cold. ~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn
Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.
When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.
The routine: loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.
The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.
Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky. They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.
Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.
Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.
On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.
Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun. We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.
A real (sort of) starter farm.
Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.
I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.
Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.
A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.
My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever: volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.
That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.
The room darkened, darkened until our nakedness became a form of gray; then the rain came bursting, and we were sheltered, blessed, upheld in a world of elements that held us justified. In all the love I had felt for you before, in all that love, there was no love like that I felt when the rain began… ~John Updike from “The Blessing” from Collected Poems.
As the rains return, we shelter together, blessed by years and miles, our unknown become known, our understanding breathed in silence. Though we be gray as the clouds above, our hearts beat in synchrony each pulsing moment more sacred than the last.
Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still! ~William Wordsworth from Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 1802
The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder. — G. K. Chesterton
The ending of September is wistful yet expectant. We have not yet had frost but the air has a stark coolness that presages a freeze coming soon. Snow has fallen on the mountain passes and the peaks.
Nothing is really growing any more; there is a settling in, as if going down for a nap–drifting off, comfortable, sinking deep and untroubled under the blankets.
Our long sleep is not yet come but we take our rest at intervals. There is still daylight left though the frenetic season has passed.
We take our calm as it comes, in a serene moment of reflection, looking out from the edge and wondering… pondering what is waiting on the other side.
The neighbor’s horses idle under the roof of their three-sided shelter, looking out at the rain.
Sometimes one or another will fade into the shadows in the corner, maybe to eat, or drink.
Still, the others stand, blowing out their warm breaths. Rain rattles on the metal roof.
Their hoof prints in the corral open gray eyes to the sky, and wink each time another drop falls in. ~Jennifer Gray
The September rains have returned and will stay awhile. We, especially the horses, sigh with relief, as flies no longer crawl over their faces all day seeking a watery eye to drink from. With no flies around, there are also no longer birds tickling pony backs looking for a meal.
Our Haflingers prefer to graze under open gray skies not bothering to seek cover during the day; their mountain coats provide adequate insulation in a rain squall. Darkness descends earlier and earlier so I go out in the evening to find them standing waiting at the gate, ready for an invitation to come into the barn.
Their eyes are heavy, blinking with sleep; outside their muddy hoofprints fill with rain overnight.
It is a peaceful time for us no-longer-young ponies and farmers. We wink and nod together, ready for rain, ready for the night.
The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love. But if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is also from God. ~Meister EckhartfromFreedom from Sinful Thoughts
Every day I tend to get distracted from the reason I’m here; I become too absorbed by the troubles of the moment, or anticipating the troubles of tomorrow.
It ends up all about the feelings which can overwhelm all else – am I comfortable? restless? discouraged? peevish? worried? empty?
When my soul grows cold, I need igniting. I long for the spark of God to set me aflame again at the risk of getting singed. We’re all kindling ready to be lit.
To long for longing: I will pray for this at the beginning and ending of every day.
Broad August burns in milky skies, The world is blanched with hazy heat; The vast green pasture, even, lies Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.
Amid the grassy levels rears The sycamore against the sun The dark boughs of a hundred years, The emerald foliage of one.
Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen, Within the clement twilight thrown By that great cloud of floating green, A horse is standing, still as stone.
He stirs nor head nor hoof, although The grass is fresh beneath the branch; His tail alone swings to and fro In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.
He stands quite lost, indifferent To rack or pasture, trace or rein; He feels the vaguely sweet content Of perfect sloth in limb and brain. ~William Canton “Standing Still”
Sweet contentment is a horse dozing in the summer field, completely sated by grass and clover, tail switching and skin rippling automatically to discourage flies.
I too wish at times for that stillness of mind and body, allowing myself to simply “be” without concern about yesterday’s travails, or what duties await me tomorrow. Sloth and indifference sounds almost inviting. I’m an utter failure at both.
The closest I come to this kind of stillness is my first moments of waking from an afternoon nap. As I slowly surface out of the depths of a few minutes of sound sleep, I lie still as a stone, my eyes open but not yet focused, my brain not yet working overtime.
I simply am.
It doesn’t stay simple for long. But it is good to remember the feeling of becoming aware of living and breathing.
I want to use my days well. I want to be worthy. I want to know there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away.
It is absolutely enough to enjoy the glory of it all.